Powder Room - MJ Delaney interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
YOUNG director MJ Delaney talks about the making of Powder Room and what she likes about the original stage production When Women Wee.
She also talks about the joy of working with Sheridan Smith, the challenges of being confined to a single location, her ambitions as a filmmaker and some of her preparation for the project.
Q. How did the project come about?
MJ Delaney: Well, I met [producer] Damian [Jones] in June/July last year and he had this locked box money for The Iron Lady. I think he was one of the first producers to get it. When the Tories axed The Film Council they introduced this very capitalist alternative where the money went back to the producers and they could invest it in film and reap the profits. That’s a really bad summary of what the scheme is… but all I know is there was this lovely big pot of film money that could be invested in all these nice non-commercial things. I think he was the only one out of the first group of producers that that did it and invested… I think everyone else put it into development, whereas he decided to make a micro-budget feature. And so I met up with him, he gave me the script for When Women Wee, which was the stage play that the film is based on. I read it and thought it was hilarious.
And then in September he rang me and said “we’re doing it, we’re going to shoot it in November”. At that point, the only script we had was for the play, which was just a series of vignettes in a toilet. It didn’t have any central storyline, none of the main characters or the relationships between them really existed. So, we had to develop the script in tandem with the pre-production, so Andy and I were casting characters that were simultaneously being cut. So, it was mental. And then we had to finish it all for Cannes in May, because Damian wanted to go and sell it in Cannes, which he did to Universal, which was pretty amazing.
Q. Sidney Lumet also directed his first feature confined to a single location. Is this a good way to start as a director?
MJ Delaney: I don’t know if I can answer that question because I’ve only just started! [Laughs]
Q. Could you tell me about the pros and cons of a single location?
MJ Delaney: I think the pros were that considering we had the tiniest budget in the world it was the only way we were going to be able to make a film on this money [laughs]. I think the cons were trying to make a film. I think if you take a play and turn it into a film the first instinct is to put it in multiple locations because that’s your easy way of making it feel more like a film. If you go into the theatre and you sit down and the set is a toilet, you’re like “right, I’m in a toilet for the next two hours”. Whereas if you’re watching a film you may be like: “Wow, this toilet scene is going on for quite a long time.” So, that was the challenge. But I guess it was quite nice to have because it kind of forced a focus to my approach. So, in terms of what I wanted to do to it aesthetically, it was all tied into to how can it feel like a bigger space than it is? How can we make this four-walled box more interesting than just this one room that we’re stuck in for the whole night. So, in that respect, I guess everything that you’re thinking of and experimenting with and all the ideas you’re having, are being wrapped around this one central dilemma.
Q. How free did you allow your actors to be? Did you allow them to improvise?
MJ Delaney: We were so up against it in terms of time with the schedule that we didn’t have a huge amount of time to experiment or be free with it. It was tight, the turnaround. But I was so delighted with the cast I had, and by the time I got to the point of casting it, I was so confident in every single one of the girls and not only how good they were, but how much they loved the character they were playing, and how invested they were in that, that I largely just left them all alone and they did an amazing job. We did a lot of talking about the girls more than we did rehearsing the script.
Q. Back stories…
MJ Delaney: Not so much back stories, more just getting a handle on them. With Chanel, we spoke a lot about how at the beginning of the film, she’s the least likely candidate for it, but then by the end of the film she is the heart of the film. She is like the moral compass, which is so unexpected. And then with Oona [Chaplin] and Kate [Nash] you could envisage the film from their perspective, where they actually don’t do anything wrong, they’re perfectly nice to this girl [Sheridan’s Smith’s Sam] who behaves totally weirdly. So, it was kind of finding a way to like all of the girls in some way.
Q. And what was the purpose of the powder room lady [played by Johnnie Fiori]?
MJ Delaney: I like the fact that the supernatural element we brought into it gave us a lot more licence to have fun with it, which again kind of liberates you from this space a little bit. Johnnie has such a presence and a dignity about her, which was always really important for me for that character in that she kind of is so weary of everyone. Yet despite the fact you love all the characters, you’re always on her side. So, even though Saskia [Sarah Hoare] and Paige [Riann Steele] are funny, and you know they’re having fun, when they’re being really f**king annoying, you’re totally on the toilet attendants’ side and seeing it through her eyes.
Q. Looking at some of the film’s themes, I see it as being a transition from being a youngster and carefree to being an adult. Was that something you were consciously aware of and developing?
MJ Delaney: I like the way she takes one of the young girls to her breast and comforts her and yet still goes utterly un-acknowledged by both of them. They just won’t pay her any attention. I think in terms of the maternal theme that runs through it, I think that we kind of look at the young girls’ characters in it, and you get kind of nostalgic for it, and you see Sheridan [Smith], when she does that thing in the toilet… I hope that the generation above us sees the main set of girls and has a nostalgia about that as well and think: “Oh, you should look after yourselves a bit better.”
Q. Did you encourage the cast to prepare by going to a nightclub together or anything like that?
MJ Delaney: Riann [Steele] went to Fabric and watched a load of people off their faces on pills, which I think is one of the funniest bits of research I’ve heard about [laughs]. But I think it’s not like a period drama, where you have to research… I think I can vouch for most of the cast that they’ve been there. Jaime and I were at a rave at Halloween and there was a toilet attendant and as we left I went: “Thank you so much for having us!”
Q. One of the ideas behind the film is accepting who you are. How has that been as a filmmaker for you? Does it magnify the sense of accepting who you are or are you always looking around because it’s a very competitive industry?
MJ Delaney: I think it’s a difficult question to answer because it kind of assumes that you know who you are to be able to accept who you are and I don’t know if I do, especially not professionally [laughs].
Q. How did you enjoy working with Sheridan?
MJ Delaney: It was ridiculous getting her in the first place. Doing the deal it was like: “What?! This is amazing!” With Sam, aside from all the usual central character stuff about creating a personality that keeps them a person and not just a vessel, but also the Sam character does so many morally dubious things over the course of the evening, and it’s quite questionable behaviour towards her friends, so at the very beginning there was always this concern about whether she would lose the audience; would people not side with her? But the second you get Sheridan you just know that that’s never going to happen. There’s an ultimate ability about her because she’s so lovely… and then this vulnerability that she wears. She can do out and out comedy. I love her for her physical comedy. She just cracks me up… just even the way she can walk across the room with a little facial expression, and yet she can hold this vulnerability beneath the surface, so you’re constantly aware of what’s going on in her head just by a little glance she’ll do at Kate. You’re seeing the motivation there the whole of the time. The day that she did the breakdown scene had such a weird atmosphere… because it’s a comedy and there’s all these mouthy girls, cast and crew, it’s a raucous atmosphere for weeks on end, but then there was this day of silence because of what she was doing. Her breakdown was like the voice of women, or young girls, going ‘aaaggh’ and it was really touching.